Pope Honors Spanish “Martyrs”

The History and Politics of Sainthood

The Christian concept of “saint” has a long history. In the New Testament, in the epistles of Paul (Ephesians 1:1, for example), it refers to the Christian community in general, and also to Christians who have died and are assumed to be in Heaven. From a very early period, the term became more specifically applied to persons martyred for the faith. By the fourth century, those believed to have performed miracles were added to the list. Roman Catholic canon law came to specify that persons so designated must be venerated as having entered Heaven and possessing the ability to “intercede” between the believer and God. They are, that is to say, not regarded as having the capacity to answer prayer themselves but to facilitate the process. The whole concept is rejected by most Protestants but is central to the history of Roman Catholicism. Indeed, as the historian Peter Brown writes, the cult of the saints became the dominant form of religion in Europe after the fall of Rome (The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, University of Chicago Press, 1982, p3). For centuries it was closely related to the cult of saints’ relics, collected by almost every church and the object of pilgrimage.

The Church, acting as its adherents see it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has a procedure to select certain dead people for recognition as saints. The first step is beatification, which pronounces the individual “blessed” but doesn’t oblige believers to venerate him or her. It merely allows the believer to pray in the beatified’s name. The skeptic might suspect that politics have as much to do with beatification as divine inspiration; the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne (surely no “saint” in the colloquial sense) was beatified soon after his death in 814. The Pope, as Christ’s Vicar on earth, has the final say. The late Pope John Paul II, who will surely himself be beatified eventually, beatified 1338 — the largest number of any pope in history.

Having done some study on this topic, I think that the concepts of beatification and sainthood, and the notion of praying to saints, were no part of the earliest Christianity but quite likely a meme derived from Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism (to which some Christians in Syria and Egypt were exposed by the second century if not earlier) we find the concept of the boddhisattva — the enlightened being who, after death, remains in the cosmos out of a spirit of compassion and is available to answer prayer. Some boddhisattvas have specific qualities or functions: for example, Avalokitesvara is associated with compassion, Manjushiri with wisdom, Vasudhara with wealth and fertility. St. Christopher (downgraded in 1969 by the Vatican due to questions about his histroical existence) was long the patron saint of travelers. His Buddhist counterpart is Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva who helps travelers.

In the 190s, in Alexandria, Egypt, church leader Clement (later made St. Clement) in his Stromatae made the first known Christian references to Buddhism. He mentioned Buddha by that title. He also described Buddhist monks (in an era before there were any Christian monks, although he compared them with the heterodox Christian ascetics of Syria, the Encratites), and the Buddhist practice of reverencing the bones of virtuous persons under pyramids (by which he means stupas). (See John Ferguson, trans., Clement of Alexandria: Stromateis, Books One to Three [Catholic University of America Press, 1991], p. 293.) There were almost surely Indian Buddhists in Alexandria and in Antioch, the terminus of the Silk Road. Ideas like the reverence of saints often pass from one religious tradition into another quite different one. I think monasticism itself, along with the cult of relics, the use of prayer-beads, and the cult of saints — none of which are mentioned in the New Testament or are likely derived from Roman pagan practice — are Buddhist memes.

In short, I personally think the cult of saints is a human invention to be logically and historically explained. It’s very interesting, and perhaps harmless or even psychologically helpful for the believer; a Buddhist monk is likely to tell you, “If believing alleviates suffering, what is the harm?” Nevertheless maybe sometimes the selection process can do harm. If you chose the wrong person to beatify, you may open old wounds.

In Vatican City on Oct. 28, in the largest beatification ceremony ever held, Pope Benedict XVI placed 498 persons on the road to sainthood. They all died during the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), and were presented as martyrs to their faith. This was just days before the Spanish Parliament was scheduled to debate the “Law of Historical Memory” requiring local governments in Spain to fund efforts to unearth mass graves of victims of that war containing thousands killed at the hands of the fascist dictator and devout Roman Catholic Francisco Franco. Is the timing not curious?

Half a million people died in the war. On the one hand there were the partisans of a Republican government under a leftist Popular Front coalition that won parliamentary elections. They were leftist and anticlerical, hostile to the great wealth and power of the Catholic Church. (The Church, consisting of about 115,000 priests, monks and nuns in a country of 24 million, controlled over 15% of all arable land, and had large holdings in bank capital and other financial enterprises.) On the other were the Nationalists under Gen. Franco, well-known for his exploits in Spain’s colonial war in Morocco, and for crushing a miners’ uprising. The Republicans were supported by the Soviets, the Nationalists by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy—and the Church.

The brutality of Franco’s fascists and foreign allies is immortalized in Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” depicting the German Luftwaffe bombing of a Basque town in 1937. While there was brutality on all sides, the Nationalist dead were treated with respect following Franco’s victory and during his long dictatorship to his death in 1975. (He enjoyed massive U.S. support during the Cold War, and continuing warm, grateful support from the Catholic Church.) There are tens of thousands of victims of the fascists whose remains have not yet been located, and some prominent clerics in Spain seem content with that. AP quotes Francisco Perez, the archbishop of Pamplona, as opposing the bill before the Spanish parliament. “You can’t change history,” he says, urging victims “to look for ways to forget.”

In a Spanish language sermon in St. Peter’s Square Sunday, Benedict declared that the beatified ones were “motivated exclusively by their love for Christ.” “These martyrs,” added the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (the number two man at the Vatican, according to Reuters) “have not been proposed for veneration by the people of God because of their political implications nor to fight against anybody” but because they had been exemplary Christians.

The Pope, meanwhile, has been an outspoken critic of the growing secularization of Spanish society. Church attendance has fallen dramatically since 1975, and according to a 2002 survey only 19 percent of Spaniards consider themselves practicing Catholics. Spain has under current President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero adopted a liberal divorce law and legalized gay marriage. An indignant Pope Benedict in 2005 urged Spaniards to firmly resist “secular tendencies,” and perhaps he associates these with the present attention given to “historical memory.”

The Spanish state wants to dig up the victims of fascism. The Church wants to leave them buried, while launching its own remembered martyrs into the stratosphere for veneration. Whom do these include? Augustinian Fr. Gabino Olaso Zabala, executed by Republican forces. In 1896 he participated in the torture of a priest in the Philippines, a Filipino Fr. Mariano Dacanay, who was suspected of sympathy for anti-Spanish revolutionaries. He encouraged prison guards to kick the priest in the head.

But as of Sunday, Catholics so inclined are authorized to seek his intercession between themselves and God.

No political implications here, says the Vatican Secretary of State, although many Spaniards seem to disagree. I wonder what they’re saying in the Philippines.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sk said on November 3rd, 2007 at 7:17am #

    Here are some more Spanish “martyrs” being honored. As George Mosse demonstrated, the cult of the “fallen hero” holds a lot of emotional appeal for this crowd.

    Incidentally, the Phalangists–“the only truly fascist group ever to emerge in the Mideast” as Eric Margolis put it–were also mentioned in this rally. Should be interesting viewing to those given to connecting non-existent dots to prove that this type of politics has anything to do with “Islamofascism”, whatever that means.

  2. kikz said on November 3rd, 2007 at 9:43am #

    man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

    d. diderot

  3. Michael Kenny said on November 3rd, 2007 at 1:45pm #

    Wow! An Agustinian friar who died in the 1930s committed a sin in 1896, for which he in all probability subsequently repented! What church could survive a scandal of that magnitude! Come back, Jimmy Swaggert, all is forgiven!

  4. Hue Longer said on November 3rd, 2007 at 2:36pm #

    Wow Michael,

    it’s not like he climaxed into a gym sock…as a “man of Christ” he participated in the beat down of a priest…Repent? Sure, ok I guess—- but a fugging Saint?!

  5. David Kennedy said on November 6th, 2007 at 5:40am #

    Thanks Professor Leupp for your timely reminder of what the Roman Catholic Church stands for and the traditions it holds dear.

    Of course, this latest mass beatification has no political implications! Nor did Pope Pius X11’s sympathy for Hitler and the Nazi cause.

    Superstition seems to be a weakness of the human brain, probably linked to the development of the imagination. It is certainly enormously powerful and many people seem more inclined to believe their superstitions rather than their senses and reasoning faculty. Is this because of the brainwashing children undergo with respect to religion and the reason for life? The Jesuits made great claims for their teaching methods if they caught the children early enough.

    Were it not for all of the wars and strife it has caused over the centuries, religion could be passed off as a relatively harmless distraction. Sadly, too much evil and suffering arises from adherence to religious belief as witnessed by the current conflagration in the Middle East.

    It seems to me that there is some terrible weakness in the human brain, probably associated with imagination and its interaction with the emotional centre of the brain, that has led humans to create the idea of a ‘god’ made in man’s image and which has ‘empowered’ man with dominion over all other forms of life. I fear that this is leading us not only to self-destruction, but possibly to the destruction of all life on earth.

    Such is the power of self-delusion.

  6. rene said on December 15th, 2007 at 11:54am #

    Thanks for the information of the recent beatification in Rome and of Father Zabala. The Augustinian Friar, Gabino Olaso Zabala was making headlines in the Philippines because of his involvement for torutring a Filipino priest in the late 1800’s. His action was unjustifiable and many Filipinos are having mixed feelings of his beatification. If you read the history of the Philippines you will find out how Filipinos were mistreated by the Spanish missionaries since the beginning of Christianization in the country and their abuses continued until all Spanish missionaries were kicked out of the Philippines. And one of them was Father Gabino Olaso Zabala. Another controversial Spanish figure whose canoninaztion is pending is Mother Francisca Fuentes of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. She was a Spaniard born in 1647 in the Philippines. The Dominican convent was established by Spanish Fr. Juan in 1696 and Mother Francisca was the prioress. The dominican community did not accept native Filipinos becasue of their race. It was limited to 15 Sisters all Spaniards. Filipinos were barred. The Dominican nuns are trying to make her a saint. But since Francisca praticed discrimination how can she be considered a saint ?